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Rollin’ and Rockin’ in Val Gardena

Val Gardena
South Tyrol
Cuisine: Italian
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Donna Dailey: This region of northern Italy once belonged to Austria, and it’s still a charming hybrid of the two cultures in architecture, language and, of course, food.

I’m huffing and puffing my way up a hill at the edge of Selva di Gardena, en route to a cookery lesson. Anna Messner Perathoner normally conducts her courses in local cuisine down in the village, but today she has invited us to her home to show us how it’s done in a real South Tyrolean farmhouse.
The crisp air and sunshine, and the glorious views of the Dolomites at every turn, are whetting my appetite as much as the exercise.
Just when I think we’re about to disappear into the forest, the peaked roof of Anna’s chalet pops into view. A few dozen more groaning metres and we’re there, panting before a storybook house with bright flowers spilling over the wooden balconies and mauve stencils swirling round the windows.
Val Gardena, a narrow valley snaking below the rugged peaks of the Dolomites, is one of the most beautiful pockets of South Tyrol. This region of northern Italy once belonged to Austria, and it’s still a charming hybrid of the two cultures in architecture, language and, of course, food. Thus, on today’s menu, we’re learning how to make two very different regional dishes: Crafuncins, a crescent-shaped spinach ravioli, and Apfelstrudel.
I opt for the ravioli course and slide into a cosy spot around the kitchen table. Anna, a cheery blonde, measures and blends 250 grams of wheat and rye flour and plops an egg in the middle, then adds water, oil and salt. She mixes it by hand and we take turns kneading the dough into a ball.
But we look with suspicion at the shiny silver pasta machine clamped to the tabletop. We’re here to learn traditional cooking, and this seems far too modern. Even when Anna’s daughter Mary, who speaks good English, assures us this is the customary way, we insist on using Anna’s old-fashioned rolling pins.
So we roll...and roll...and roll some more....... No matter how thin we think we’ve got it, Anna shakes her head. Finally we give up and let her wind a slice of the dough through the machine – not once, but three times – producing a sheet of pasta so thin it’s almost translucent. Only then is it ready for the next step.
Anna has pre-cooked the filling of chopped spinach, onion, olive oil and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese which, we learn to our chagrin, was also blended in a food processor to give it a superfine consistency. While some get to grips with the pasta machine, the rest of us cut 7-8 cm discs out of the finished sheets.
We then drop spoonfuls of filling into the centres, folding them over and pinching the edges to seal the crescents. Not too much, or they will go “kaput”, Anna warns, waving her hands in an exploding gesture. It’s a tedious process, and only the fresh scent of herby spinach and pungent cheese keeps us going until we’ve produced several dozen crafuncins.
Meanwhile, more rolling pin action is going on at the counter where Mary is showing another group the fine art of making apple strudel. She rolls out the dough on a floured cloth, then uses the backs of her hands to spread it out from the middle until it’s paper thin.
A delicious filling of finely sliced apples – Gravensteiner or Golden Delicious are favourites for this recipe – breadcrumbs, raisins, pine nuts, sugar, butter, cinnamon and lemon zest is added on top. Then the strudel is rolled from the side by lifting up the cloth.
While the strudel bakes and delicious fruit and cinnamon aromas fill the house, Anna brings an enormous pot to the boil. I hold my breath as she drops in the crafuncins, but nothing goes kaput. Soon we are feasting on our morning’s work and toasting our success with glasses of Lagrein, the only rich, dark red wine native to South Tyrol, a region better known for its whites and rosés.
On a previous visit to South Tyrol, I’d eaten dumplings or pasta at nearly every meal. So my impression was that it is essentially a high-carb cuisine. Those notions are quickly dispelled that evening with dinner at Restaurant Tubladel in Ortisei, Val Gardena’s largest town.
The cooking at this rustic, romantic restaurant is simple and local, yet very creative. Wooden platters of charcuterie, including the regional speciality speck, a smoked ham cured with juniper and other spices, are served with baskets of the hard rye bread laced with fennel and caraway seeds, known as pan sëch or schüttelbrot. For the main course, I share the house steak special: a butter-soft entrecote large enough for three, served on a hot lava stone and sizzled to perfection at the table.
All that protein sets me up nicely for a 20 km trek in the Dolomites the following day. What begins as a gentle hike across the pastures of the Naturalparc Puez-Geisler above Ortisei becomes a challenging ascent between the jagged peaks of these rugged mountains. Grasping the iron ropes and ladders of this via ferrata (iron route), I pull myself up among the rocks and along the ridges until I reached the top, triumphant.
My reward awaits a short walk beyond at Sofie Hut, an alpine chalet with a big sunny terrace and an excellent restaurant. Calories are no object as we celebrate with glasses of sparkling Prosecco and feast on linguini with baby shrimp and tender lamb chops.
From the terrace we can see Selva far below. There’s a chairlift nearby but, still buzzing from the adrenaline and no doubt the wine, we’re not quite ready to leave the mountains. And before long I’m rolling again, happily down the trail towards home.
Words and images: Donna Dailey
Donna Dailey was a guest of the 4* superior Hotel Gran Baita in Selva, which offers summer/autumn packages from Euro 910 to Euro 1,330 per person for 7 nights’ half board, based on two people sharing.
Nearest airports are Innsbruck, Verona, Venice and Milan Bergamo with airlines including EasyJet, Ryanair and BA
For more information on Val Gardena go to email or call 0039 0471 777 777
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23 October 2015
By: Donna Dailey
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